Talk to five different people about how long you should breastfeed, and you’re likely to hear five different answers. The general consensus is that breastfeeding is a great idea for at least the first six months of a child’s life, but after that, it starts to get a little fuzzy.
Which is it, then? Is a year enough? How about two years? Should you combine breast milk and solid foods? Here are some of the details around the benefits of breastfeeding that can help you decide what timetable is right for you and your baby.
- Colostrum. Newborns who breastfeed immediately will intake colostrum, a sticky yellowish fluid that’s produced by the mother right after birth. It’s highly concentrated, easily digested and protects the baby from infection and serves as a laxative.
- Closeness. Early breastfeeding provides a closeness and bond between the baby and mother, so even a few weeks of breastfeeding is beneficial for this connection.
- Lower Chance of Illness. With four to six weeks of breastfeeding, a baby should experience lower rates of illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis and SIDS.
- Fewer Ear Infections. Over three to six months, babies who are breastfed experience half as many ear infections as formula-fed babies.
- Avoidance of Allergies. Babies who have been breastfed for the first six months will produce antibodies to coat the intestines and protect them from allergens, resulting in fewer allergies.
- Further Immunities. From six to nine months, babies undergo one of their most important developmental stages, and breast milk provides important immunities to protect them from germs.
- Intelligence Quotient. Research has demonstrated that breastfed babies score an average of eight points higher on IQ tests compared to formula-fed babies.
- Chronic Disease Protection. Nursing for a year or more will help protect babies against diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, colitis and asthma in adulthood.
- Cost Savings. While not as important as the health of a baby, it’s true that breastfeeding is more affordable than buying formula and baby food. Even supplementing their diet with breast milk can save money.
- Orthodontia and Speech. Studies show that babies who breastfeed for a year or more are less likely to require orthodontic work or speech therapy later on.
- Weaning. Babies may start weaning on their own at any time, or mothers can deliberately wean them onto solid food.
- Mixed Diet. Even after babies have started weaning onto solid foods, they can still benefit from the concentrated nutrients and powerful anti-illness properties of breast milk.
The Bottom Line:
Everyone’s situation is unique. Not every mother is biologically capable of nursing for years at a time, and with many moms working, it can be impractical for a child to breastfeed for an extended period of time. Even so, the facts point to plenty of benefits for long-term breastfeeding. By six months to a year, it’s probably a good idea to introduce solid foods so babies can learn to feed themselves, but perfectly health children self-wean at age 3 or 4.